Don’t Snap These Threads

by Bruce Anderson, June 4, 2008

Imagine yourself making your way from Boonville to Mexico City any way you could when, just south of San Diego, you had to get yourself over, under or through a twenty foot high illuminated steel-plated barrier patrolled by armed men and attack dogs. Once past the fence, a fence aimed specifically at keeping you on the other side of it, you are immediately deep in a strange country, a very strange country, without speaking that country's language. You trudge on. Some people you meet are kind, most are indifferent. You arrive. You find shelter and work. You're still new but you've managed a journey to a new life in a new place and you still find the time to go back to school to learn to speak the new country's language so you can make better lives for your children.

It's the American story, and the ladies inside a bunker-like building behind the Anderson Valley Elementary School are telling it in unique ways, stitching the stories of their lives, making art out of them.

The ladies inside the unpromising building are sewing quilts. Not your grandmother's quilts, those poor people's blankets made from whatever spare material grandma had lying around, these are smaller quilts the size of paintings and just as suited to framing and hanging on a wall. They are, you might say, narrative quilts, stunningly imaginative re-creations of former lives in rural Mexico, harrowing depictions of journeys from there to here, even more harrowing panels of the daunting but porous Big Fence south of San Diego, and gentle tributes to mothers and fathers and children. These things are amazing, much better, far more affecting than most folk art because they're rooted in real travail.

Sometimes as many as a dozen women, all of them recent immigrants, are telling their stories in meticulously stitched patches of color, so ingeniously conceived and realized one almost gasps an adolescent, "Awesome!"

Each quilt tells its creator's story, or a chapter of her story. And considering that each of the story tellers made her way across a heavily militarized border designed to keep her out, the stories are, to say the least, gripping, but simultaneously poignant and beautiful. And funny, such as the gently ironic two-panel quilt depicting a vineyard being harvested above, a wife below pouring her drunken husband another drink from the freshly reaped intoxicant.

The quilts serve two primary purposes: one is to put some badly needed cash in the artist's pocket, the second to teach the artists English. A third benefit is next door childcare while mom stitches her stories and works to take some of the roll out of her English pronunciation.

This happy confluence of education, creativity and free enterprise is about to come to an end because the building housing it will be repossessed unless a large sum of money can be found to pay its exorbitant rent. The company that owns the thing wants an extortionate amount of money for next fiscal year or they've going to roll their portable building on out of Boonville and unload it onto another unsuspecting school district. And the federal government that breathed the adventure into life as a parent literacy program has decided that the Boonville's quilt classes, effective and as nearly self-sustaining as they are, simply isn't large enough to warrant the money the feds put into it.

Which is a shame because the program works. It accomplishes its goal, which is to teach immigrants English.

Molly Johnson, a bi-lingual native of Fort Bragg, who has also served as a kindergarten teacher for Anderson Valley's schools, and Susan Kerr, a gifted quilt maker who works for the County of Mendocino, devised this unique way to link art and learning. Mix these two extraordinary ladies with a couple of government programs, add local talent in the form of the highly skilled local quilter Deanna Apfel and filmmaker Lee Serrie, and it didn't take long before the Anderson Valley quilters were featured in quilter magazines and making guest appearances in San Francisco galleries, museums, and at radio and television stations. The Boonville quilters were soon aware that their art was much in demand because there was nothing like it.

The Boonville quilts are unique, as is the strategy devised by Molly Johnson and Susan Kerr that led to their production, as are the abundance of locals who have offered the quilters the skilled technical back-up that has helped them become so well known. Not many communities can boast nationally known quilters or an award-winning professional filmmaker who can make an affecting film starring the quilts and their creator's struggles.

Los Hilos de la Vide or The Threads of Life is famous, but all its threads may be severed if it can't find a place and the means to survive.

"Now that we have it going so well," says Molly Johnson, the class's modest, soft-spoken leader, "I'd love to figure out a way to sustain it. We have three ladies here who are world class. All they need, all that all our quilters need, is to keep going. We're close to paying our own way totally because the more people know about us the more of our quilts we sell. Ten percent of sales go to supplies, the rest goes to the quilters themselves. And they're learning English as they make them. Their work touches people at a deep level. None of us wants it to end. It shouldn't end, but the grant's up this month, and it'll take about $70,000 to keep us going for another year."

Molly Johnson, assisted by a host of skilled locals, is preparing a book on the quilt project, and Lee Serrie's fine film, Hilos de la Vida is available locally or by calling               707 895-3277         707 895-3277.

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